Part 5: The nail on the head

“Father Eolas! Good to see you again. What are you doing here?”

“Light’s Blessings, Quartermaster. I am here to ask a favour of Sir Gerrig. Allow me to introduce Paladin Nægling.” Father Eolas indicated the woman standing next to him. Quartermaster looked at her, and a chill ran up his spine. The woman was perhaps a few years older than young Selena, a little taller than the monk. Long reddish brown hair, bound in a practical pony-tail. A Paladin’s tabard and robes. She held her right hand concealed behind her left. Quartermaster tried not to stare at her face, but he couldn’t help himself. A large, ragged. ugly scar ran from her ear to the corner of her mouth. Quartermaster gave her a friendly nod.

“Blessings, Paladin Nægling.” He held his hand out to the woman.

“Light’s Blessing, Quartermaster,” said the woman. She had a light, but pronounced lisp, and a voice deeper than usual for a woman. She took his hand. Her middle and ring fingers were tied together with a strap of leather, and more scars criss-crossed over the back of her hand, disappearing under the sleeve of her robe. Quartermaster shook her hand very, very carefully.

“Nægling will be staying here a while, if Sir Gerrig will let her,” said Father Eolas. “She needs some time away from the Abbey. A little quiet contemplation. A change of scenery.”

“The healers of Northshire Abbey built a shrine for their use in the function hall,” said Quartermaster. “I’m sure Sir Gerrig won’t mind if you use it.”

“Thank you, I will ask him,” said Nægling. Her voice, apart from the lisp, sounded steady, serene. Quartermaster looked into her eyes. They were calm, light brown, and looked at him without flinching. Nothing in the woman’s bearing showed any sign of aggression, but still, he had the impression that he was being sized up, the correct attacks against him determined for later use, if that became necessary.

“Well,” said Father Eolas, “We must go and meet Sir Gerrig.”

“I’ll ask the cook to make you some of her spicy chicken soup,” said Quartermaster.

Father Eolas laughed. “Ah, you have guessed my real reason for coming here.”

They nodded at each other, and Father Eolas and Nægling walked off towards the keep. Nægling walked with a limp, and Quartermaster could see by the way in which she put her left foot down, that it hurt her to walk. Poor girl, he thought. What could have hurt her so much that healers couldn’t have mended her any better?


“Light’s Blessings, Sir Gerrig. May I introduce to you Paladin Nægling of Northshire?”

“Blessings upon you, Father, Paladin Nægling.”

Gerrig’s eyes briefly scanned Nægling’s face, then quickly settled on Father Eolas’ tonsured head and wrinkled face. He motioned them to sit down on the chairs provided for guests in his office. Nægling pulled back the chairs for Father Eolas and herself, waited for the old man to sit down, then seated herself, looking at the table, hands folded in her lap.

“Sir Gerrig, said Father Eolas, “I have come to ask a favour of you, for Paladin Nægling. She has suffered through an ordeal not of her own making, and is in need of a safe place, away from the distractions of Northshire Abbey. It is my hope that through prayer and meditation, she may be able to put the events that have occurred in proper perspective, and put her mind at rest.”

Gerrig surreptitiously glanced at Nægling’s ravaged face, wondering what those events could have been. A surge of pity moved him. He looked at Father Eolas. Doubtlessly, the old fox had counted on Nægling’s appearance to gain his sympathy. And how could he refuse?

“As you know, housing the forces of the Alliance is what we do best. The healers of Northshire Abbey have done us a great favour. Paladin Nægling is welcome to stay here as long as she needs.” He turned to Nægling. “Paladin Nægling, please accept the hospitality of Caer Bannog. You can ask Quartermaster to assign you sleeping quarters.”

“Thank you, Sir Gerrig,” said Father Eolas. He turned to Nægling. “My child, there are things I need to discuss with Sir Gerrig alone. Could you excuse us for a few moments?”

“Of course,” said Nægling. “Your Quartermaster, he mentioned a shrine?”

Gerrig smiled. “Go down the stairs, and out the door. The first building to your right. Against the south wall. Your fellow Paladins, the healers of Northshire Abbey, made it.”

“Thank you. Father, Sir Gerrig.” She bowed her head to each of them in turn and left the room.

X

Gerrig watched as Nægling limped out of the room, then turned to Father Eolas.

“That poor woman. What happened to her?”

“That is a question with several answers,” said Father Eolas. “Superficially, Nægling was caught by the Gnolls that live just to the North of Lakeshire, and beaten to within an inch of her life. She managed to escape because the Gnolls were quarreling over who would get the best bits of her. She managed to get into Lakeshire supported by not much more than her last drops of willpower and faith. By rights, she should be dead.”

Father Eolas’ fingers played with the ends of the rope that he used as a belt to his monks’ robes. His eyes turned to Gerrig.

“There was this book. A spellbook of healing magics. All the healers in the Abbey had contributed something to it. It was to become a standard work of healing, for the outpost of Morgan’s Vigil. The Light knows they need their healers there to be competent. It is not a friendly place.”

Gerrig nodded. He had rarely ventured so far North, and did not particularly relish the memory of the times he had. The Burning Steppes were a dismal place of ashes and death, inhabited by Demons, Ogres and worse.

“It was imperative that the book be sent there as soon as possible, but as they were making themselves ready to leave, a summons came and all healers were called to a battle. The Commander then entrusted the book to Nægling’s hands and told her to bring it, alone, to Morgan’s Vigil, hoping that a single novice Paladin would not attract as much attention to herself as a group of more experienced ones.”

Gerrig said nothing, but an ugly picture was beginning to form in his mind. He himself would not go to such places without proper preparation, not to mention a considerable number of men. Father Eolas saw Gerrig’s face, and nodded.

“Yes. That is what happened. The Gnolls of Redridge can smell an inexperienced fighter from within their caves. The book of magic, that would have saved countless lives, was used as kindling to cook poor young Nægling. Her so-called fellow Paladin healers never forgave her for it, even though in fairness, how could she have succeeded? They gave her the amount of healing required to keep her alive, but no more.” Father Eolas’ fist closed tight. “And that was the start. You know how cruel a group of people can be to an unwanted member of their own. Young Nægling was not spared anything. Miserable, petty things, unworthy of those who name themselves Paladins of the Light. Hiding her clothes. Imitating her walk and her lisp, that they could have fixed if they had wanted. Countless other things. I would have protected her if I could, but I could hardly imprison her within my quarters.”

Father Eolas stood up, walked to the window and looked out. He looked over his shoulder at Gerrig.

“That went on for months. It became more and more serious. Once, she was ambushed, a bag pulled over her head, and she was beaten. We never could find out who had done that. Personally, I would have excommunicated whoever was found guilty.”

Gerrig nodded. “But nobody confessed?”

“No,” said Father Eolas. He turned round, and a deep, deep anger was on his face, more remarkable because Father Eolas never got angry.

“They all did.”

For several long breaths, neither of them spoke. Father Eolas sat back down in his chair, looking at his hands in his lap.

“But young Nægling is strong. Even after that incident, she bore her fate. She managed to attend her lessons. Grow in her abilities, which are considerable. And then came the day that finally, it all became too much. She was at breakfast, when one of them came by and dropped rat droppings in her porridge, saying that that was the appropriate food for her. Then, he tried to shove her face in it.”

Father Eolas looked up, with an expression on his face almost of pride.

“Finally, she had had enough. She attacked him. Fists, spells, weapons. His friends tried to help, but she managed to cast Divine Shield on herself, somehow including her tormentor in it, hands round his throat. Had her shield held up for a few seconds more, young Bors would have been sent home in a coffin, rather than in acolyte’s robes, on foot. I did take Nægling under my wing, and into my chambers then. Clearly, returning her to the Abbey is impossible. Hence, I thought of you. May the Light reward you for your kindness in accepting her as a guest.”

“I would never refuse anyone coming from you, Father. Even less so now I know her story.”

“I have a few more requests to make of you. Nægling is marked in both body and spirit by her ordeal. I fear that, placed in any group of men, history might repeat itself. Please keep her as far away as possible from any of your men endowed with a sense of… let us call it humour. Also, do not let her sleep in communal sleeping quarters, for the same reason. If you would, find her separate sleeping accomodations. She must find a way to heal her mind. I fear that for her body, it may be too late.”

Gerrig thought a moment. Ah.

“I think I have a solution. We recently employed a Gnome rogue who gathers intelligence on the Blackrock Orcs. She, likewise, does not enjoy sleeping with the rest of the men and has procured private sleeping quarters in one of the store cupboards. Paladin Nægling can share her room.”

“That would be splendid. Thank you.”


The wind was in his face. The night was cool, and a full moon was out. He ran, faster than the wind, faster than a speeding bird. The feeling was incredible. He knew he could keep it up as long as he wanted. The Night-elf, Fairbreeze, had visited them this evening, and by the leave of the Boss, had taken him out into the forest. Fairbreeze had taught Cullan how to run. Run wild, free. Cullan knew he was cursed, but this magnificent feeling almost made up for it. Just for the sheer fun of it, he leapt onto a large boulder, then jumped off, to see how far he could reach. He landed on his hands, let his arms give a little, then pushed himself back up, and ran on with a grin on a face well suited to grinning. In front of him was a hill, and he attacked it, devoured it, made it his, with unlimited strength, pushing his muscles as hard as he could. Within mere seconds, he reached the top of the hill, and looked out over the moonlit forest before him. His flanks rose and fell quickly with short breaths, until finally, he breathed in the scents of the forest all round him.

Cuchullain howled.


“Hey. Who are you?”

The little Gnome woman had returned to her quarters to find some strange Human woman sitting on her knees on the floor, across the hallway from her door. A hood covered her head.

“My name is Nægling. I have been assigned to these sleeping quarters. I saw the sign, so I thought I would wait to enter.”

Interalia raised her eyebrows. “Nobody told me! Bloody typical of lugs. Oh well. We’ll sort that out later. Pray enter.”

Nægling read the sign again.

“Are you the guard Gnome?”

Interalia gave her a look. “Guard. Gnome. Listen to yourself while you say it.” Nægling apparently did. “It’s a joke! Come on in.”

Interalia stepped in, followed by Nægling. She lit a few candles and dropped her cloak over a chair. Nægling looked round, and pushed back her hood. Interalia stared.

“By the Light! What have you done to your face?”

Nægling looked surprised, brushed her fingers across her cheek.

“Held it too close to a band of hungry Gnolls,” she said.

“Oh, I see. What were you doing up North anyway?”

“I was on a quest. I failed.” She turned round, looking at the door. “Who put that sign there?”

“I did. Why?”

“You did? Do you enjoy being called a garden Gnome?”

“Nope. That’s why I put that sign there. Better I do it than someone else. Don’t you love Humans in big groups?”

“They have reason to dislike me. I allowed their work to be destroyed. I was ordered to guard it with my life.”

“That’s a stupid order if ever I heard one. She who fights and runs away, will live to fight another day.”

“It was very important that the book be delivered to Morgan’s Vigil. People will die because of my failure.”

Interalia’s face froze. She looked into Nægling’s eyes, unbelieving.

“Hold on. Morgan’s Vigil? Burning Steppes Morgan’s Vigil? How long have you been in the Pally business?”

“Four months,” said Nægling. “Why?”

“Right. Then what kind of a stupid pissant would send a complete noob like you into a place like that? It’s a miracle that you got as far as you did. You should be nice and safe in Elwynn Forest, sharpening your skills on the bloody Defias Brotherhood.”

“The Commander told me not to engage the enemy, but instead see to it that the book was delivered.”

“Did he say what to do if the enemy engaged you?”

“Evade them.”

“Evade them? How?”

“By running, I suppose.”

“Did it work?”

Nægling stared at the floor. “No.”

“Let me tell you, Miss. You are lucky that the Gnolls caught you.”

“Am I?”

“Yes, because if they hadn’t, the demons that live in the Burning Steppes sure as hell would have. They can sense any living thing that passes in their neck of the wood, and they would have grabbed you as soon as you stuck your nose in there. Gnolls may not be nice, but they just want to eat your flesh. Demons want to eat your soul. You would have spent months there, dying. Nobody has any business going there if they can’t fight off the local wildlife.”

“The Commander is wise. He knew that I could complete my quest, or I would not have been sent on it. The failure is mine alone.”

“No it bloody isn’t. You can’t expect a Pally to do that kind of thing after, how much? Three months of training?”

“Two weeks.”

Interalia’s jaw dropped, then, she shook her small head. “I really hope I never get to meet that Commander of yours. He sounds like a complete arsehole to me.”

“He would have sent more capable Paladins, but they were all called away to a battle. I was the only one available.”

“Available? Look, if I needed someone to walk through that wall there, and you were the only one in the room besides me. If I told you to do it, could you? No. So whose fault is it that you dropped the bloody spellbook? You or that Commander? Let me tell you, you have more chance to walk through that wall, than you have of making it to Morgan’s Vigil alone. Trust me, I’ve been there. I was hiding my sorry arse most of the time, and hoping none of ’em was good enough to see through.” Interalia’s eyes met Nægling’s. “It’s not your fault. You did better than anyone had a right to expect. You came back. And now you’re here, For a special treat, you can have the top shelf.”

Nægling looked at the broad shelf, upon which someone had helpfully put one of the castle’s standard military issue straw mattresses. She nodded.

“Thank you.”

“No worries. Mind you, I was going to make Nix sleep there. No matter. He can sleep on the floor.”

Nægling opened the bag with her belongings, and started to remove her robe. She put the robe in her bag and tossed it up on her bed to use as a pillow. Interalia dropped her clothes on a chair, chattering on the while.

“He’s coming here to put in one of those fancy new rain-baths for the use of Them Upstairs. Probably going to be in and out of the place. You know that the first one is always free, but then Holy Crap!”

Interalia stared at Nægling, who was standing in the middle of the room, in her underwear. Her body was a painting of agony. Scars ran over every available patch of skin. Parallel scratches where Gnolls’ paws had raked her, healed puncture wounds, burns from the Gnoll magic users, bite marks on her legs. Interalia slowly looked up into Nægling’s face.

“Miss, I take it all back. You’re not lucky to be alive, it’s a bloody miracle!”

Nægling closed her eyes. “Yes. That sounds about right.”

She put her hands on the side of the shelf, and jumped up. She didn’t quite make it, and dropped back down again, landing on her bad leg with a small grunt. Before she could try again, she felt Interalia’s hand on her hip. The small woman was standing there, hands out for her to step on.

“Don’t trouble yourself. I can manage.”

“I’m sure you can. You’ll just manage a little easier with a leg up. Step on, Miss.”

Nægling paused a moment, then put a foot on Interalia’s hands. To her surprise, Interalia easily lifted her over her head, and she rolled onto the mattress.

“Thank you.”

“No problem.”

Nægling lay back on the mattress, under the blanket. Interalia watched her pull the leather strap from her hand, then practice moving her ring finger. Pain was on her face, but the finger moved. Interalia shook her head.

“Miss, I’ve underestimated you. You’re tough as nails. No wonder you’ve lost your sense of humour.”

“I’ve read several humorous books,” said Nægling. “Often, through the medium of jest, by painting a picture of reality drawn to the absurd, one can reach insights that might otherwise have eluded one’s attention.”

Interalia looked up at Nægling. Nægling looked back at her. A little grin stole onto Interalia’s face.

“You’re taking the piss!”

Nothing changed on Nægling’s face, but her eyes glinted.

“Good night, Interalia.”

“Night, Nails. Oh. Do you mind if I keep the candles on for a bit? I need to get this open.”

From her desk, she picked up a small box, took out her new lockpick set and started fiddling with the lock.

“Nix has been sending me presents. This lockpick set, for one. In a lockbox, of course. Little flowers. Chocolate even. Charmer.” She scraped the inside of the lock with one of her needle-small picks, trying to find purchase.

“The real presents, of course, are the locks. He makes them, I pick them. So far, I’ve been able to open every one of them, but I have to admit, this one’s got me stumped. I almost think it’s a dud.”

Nægling rolled over, looking down on the Gnome woman as she teased the lock with her tools.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, it’s the last one he’ll send me before he gets here. Maybe this lock won’t open even with the key. Maybe it’s a thing that looks like a lock, but isn’t. Maybe he hopes to get favours from me if I can’t open it. Git.”

“Is he your boyfriend?”

Interalia grinned. “Naah. He’s a nice guy, but I don’t get on with people long enough for boyfriends. Maybe I’ll give him an unforgettable night sometime, but tomorrow night is not that night.”

“Can I see the box?”

“Sure.” Interalia handed it to her. Nægling shook it.

“Nothing inside, I think. Unless it’s something light.”

“Yeah. Maybe he’s counting on me not getting it open. But if I call foul on him and it’s not a dud, then he’s got me over the barrel.”

“Hm.” Nægling took the box in her hands, took a deep breath and pulled. With a crack, the lid came off. Interalia’s jaw dropped.

“You stupid woman! You’re not supposed to do that!”

“No? Oh, I’m sorry. Still, now you can see the lock from the inside. If it is a dud, you can beat up your not-a-boyfriend with it. If it’s not… well, then your ignorant lug of a roommate broke your toy.” She handed Interalia back her box. “It’s empty.”

Interalia started to smile, then to laugh.

“And to think you’re a Holy Paladin!”

“I’m not,” said Nægling. “I’m a Retribution Paladin. I kick arse in the name of the Light.” She lay back down and turned over. “Good night.”

“Night, Nails.”

Interalia took a magnifying glass out of a drawer and looked at the lock. She started to smile. You utter bastard. There’s no way any key would ever fit in that. You’re going to the cleaners, Nix Steambender! Giggling to herself, she got into bed, blew out the candle and slept.


Cullan walked the dark streets of Gilneas City, on his way to a certain nobleman’s house. His muscles were aching, his ribs hurt, and he had a very promising bruise on his arm from the attempt of one of his comrades to take his dagger away from him. Much to his surprise, he had found that he could train without changing his shape. As Loren was fond of pointing out, most of the fighting happens in people’s heads, and becoming angry was a recipe for failure.

He came to the door, and looked round. The woman he was going to pick up was very… valuable. Losing or allowing her to be hurt was not even to be considered. All was clear, and he knocked on the door. It opened, and the woman came out.

“You’re late.”

“Apologies, Ma’am.”

The woman made a small, irritated noise, and they walked out into the street. Cullan looked round for trouble, found none, then looked back at the woman. When he had first seen her, he had been struck by how pretty she was. She was a lady of… well, no need to mince words. She was a whore. Whores, in Cullan’s admittedly uninformed imagination, were bawdy wenches, hanging around in low taverns, tempting the sailors with brief looks at their naked bodies, before taking them up the stairs, and relieving them of their gold. This woman looked nothing like that.

“I trust your business went well, Ma’am?”

The woman turned her head to Cullan, gave him a cold look, then looked ahead again. Cullan could hear her breath, feel her anger.

“Next time, don’t be late. I do not appreciate being kept waiting in that house.”

“It will not happen again, Ma’am.”

A man walked past on the other side of the street. Cullan watched him closely. There was no aggression in his bearing. He did not look their way, did not notice Cullan looking at him.

“Is this an especially challenging… customer?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing, Ma’am. Pardon me if I have offended you. I imagine your trade is not an easy one.”

The woman gave a small, sarcastic laugh. “My ‘trade’. What a nice way to call someone a whore.”

“Ma’am. I must apologise, I did not mean to imply… To be made to do the things you have to do…” Cullan faltered.

The woman shook her head, and laughed. “Oh you ignorant… pillock.”

She took a deep breath, stared into the night.

“Poor little Maisie Scrubb, taken from the loving arms of her dear mother, away from the warmth of her family. All for a few pieces of silver and some gold. Her dad prob’ly pissed it into the river the same evening. So they take her to one of their brothels, and make her take her dress off, and then her under-things, and tell her to walk about the room with all her bits sticking out, for everyone to look at, tell her to take her hands away so they can see better. And then…”

Maisie looked at Cullan, giving his imagination a few moments to complete the picture.

“Then, they put her in a big copper bath, first time she’s washed herself in a week. She’s never been in a bath that you can lie down in, and they have some woman there, just to scrub her off, and not just her back, mind. And they put soap in the water, so she smells nice. And then they brush her hair, a hundred strokes each side, can you believe it? She thinks she’ll go bald. And then, they bring in a whole rack of dresses, made of silk, and pick one for her to put on… the best dress she’s ever worn. They say it’s rubbish, and that they need another one, and that one is even better.”

“Next thing you know, some little poof wearing a wig comes in and makes a big fuss over how the dress needs to be taken in under her tits, and how it doesn’t do anything for the shape of her body, and he does all kinds of stuff with scissors, cuttin’ up the best dress she’s ever worn, and sewing it together again, and they make her look in the mirror, and blimey!”

Maisie looked ahead, smiling.

“The girl doesn’t recognise herself in the mirror. They add jewellery, silver, because gold doesn’t go with the dress, they make up her eyes, paint her lips. Pierce her ears for earrings, and then…”

“Then, they start to teach her. How to tell the silk that adventurers bring in from the silk that’s specially ordered, and shipped in on ships that don’t get into port. Mageweave stockings, woven from moonlight and magic. They teach her how to show herself, so that men will look at her, and want her, without giving away the goods too soon. They teach her to speak, all over again, so that all traces of the Rottens are erased from her vocabulary. And she learns. The girl drinks it like wine, breathes it in like perfume, until she knows how to behave, how to eat at official banquets, what all the knives and forks and spoons are for, to appreciate fine foods and wines, so that even at the table of King Genn Greymane, she will not look out of place, and they give her a new name to use, so that now, she is Miss Maressa.”

She turned her eyes to Cullan. Cullan held her gaze for a moment, then looked away.

“And then, the girl is sent to the house of a young nobleman, who has lost his wife to disease, and to his shame has found that he misses not only his wife’s love and companionship, but also the play at night in bed. These pleasures, he has not tasted since first she became ill, and the girl… sees to his needs, and when she comes back, she has more gold in her purse than her family could have earned in a month, and she still remembers the look in his eyes. Those are the times that I love my work, Mr. Cuchullain. You have no idea how many problems can be solved by a pair of warm arms, and a little understanding.” Miss Maressa’s face became hard.

“And then there are the times, when the girl is made to pretend that she is the daughter of the client, and to call him ‘Daddy’ and beg for his attentions, while the daughter is in bed asleep, three doors away.”

Cullan’s mouth fell open, and he looked away. He hardly dared look at Maressa again.

“Surely, you can… avoid that? Even in your place of employ, there must be… standards?”

Maressa’s laugh was brief, and not really amused.

“When a client stinks, you can send him away to bathe. When he wants to use you in ways that will leave marks, spoil you for the next client, you can send him back to negotiate with Madam, who may or may not allow it, for the right price. But refusing a client simply because you do not like the words? Unthinkable.”

She gave Cullan a serious look.

“Also, what do you think will happen in that house, if I were to refuse the Lord?”

They came to the House of Ill Repute. Maressa looked into Cullan’s eyes, unblinking, unashamed.

“Yes, Mr. Cuchullainn, I am a whore. But only in the sense that the liquid headache you may drink in the inn, is also called ‘wine’.”

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